Picture this: You live in white bread suburbia in Western Michigan; yours is a Christian family; a majority of local families comprise your local Reformed Church of America congregation; you consider yourself highly dedicated to the teachings of your “mega church”; and you are raising your kids to both live and spread the word of Jesus. Now picture your reaction as your teenager comes home from high school with stories of a school employee who—while on the job—is routinely trying to sell your child on Islam. Your student reports that on this day the lunchroom employee came very close to bullying him over his failure to attend an Islamic youth event he had previously agreed to attend. Your son was confronted by the employee who demanded payment for non-attendance at the Mosque event, and that employee was joined in his plea by the assistant principal—who is also a Muslim, and who echoed the disappointment in your son’s non-appearance during a private, coercive, two-on-one meeting in a closed room.

Now picture another scenario: You, the parent from above, appeared earlier that day for your annual dental visit. When you arrived in the relaxing and well-appointed waiting room, you were greeted by the usual Crescent Moon symbols, and you heard soft, morning prayer music proclaiming “I bear witness that there is no God except Allah,” among other traditional phrases. The pleasant and genuine staff greeted you, and you warmly returned the well-wishes and proceeded into the exam room to have your teeth cleaned. Between the signage and continuous Islamic-themed serenades, the hygienist worked in at least a couple of the expected references to the beauty and peace you could know through Islam, but you smiled politely with full knowledge that she means well, despite her knowledge that you are Christian.

One more scenario: To minimize time off work, you had also scheduled an appointment with your favorite ophthalmologist for later that morning. The Islamic-themed ambiance was more subdued there; nonetheless as you took your seat in the exam room, where the doctor inquired about the current state of your vision. “Hello my friend. So let me ask you, have you had any difficulties at all with your eyes … say, any troubles reading even the fine print of your Koran?”

And the greatest among these is?

So how would each of these events make you feel? If you happen to hold the beliefs of the majority, what would it be like to be the minority in your community, culturally speaking? And which of these three scenarios is more troubling to you? For me, there is one clear answer.

Let’s work backwards and make a couple of observations about the latter two scenarios, where you are patronizing private businesses whose owners are of an Islamic worldview. Regardless of whether you and your fellow Christians are in the majority or in the minority, there seems to me to be no legal, moral, or ethical problem with either of these scenarios—so long as no persecution, bigotry, or coercion is involved. Proprietors are free to proselytize and live their faith however they want, right? If we didn’t like it, we could choose another dentist, or chose another ophthalmologist.  What if it were a Muslim neighborhood and there was no alternative? Well, I suppose these are still just market forces at play, and we’d have to live with it or move elsewhere. Fair enough.

Now that being said, there is still value in pondering what it would be like to live as a minority in your local culture. While I made these quasi-fictional merchants Muslim, these two experiences are quite real and fairly emblematic for me in West Michigan; but as a non-believing minority, I experience them with Christian service providers, not Muslim providers. Truly I continue to love and appreciate these people, and harbor no ill-will toward them. (I also recognize that if I wanted to change providers, I might well wind up in the same boat anyway since they are a majority—but perhaps not.) Anyway, it’s all fine with me, though I must confess that I occasionally bristle at the constant reminders of my minority status—in terms of religion and worldview.

But let’s move back to the first scenario, the one with the high-school student; things get a little bit trickier there. How do you feel about this intervention into your family’s private religious beliefs by a government employee? And if it was condoned and supported by the assistant principal, and appeared common or systematic? The truth is that a very similar event happened recently at Michigan school near where I live, only with Christian proselytizing rather than Islamic.

From my perspective as a school board president for our local public school district, there is little doubt that had this scenario played out in our school district, but with two Muslim staff members, the mobs would quickly descend upon our board meetings and administration with a vengeance. Frankly, I’d be crying foul too, and I’d like to share why.

The most fertile ground for religion is freedom thereof

When our founding fathers escaped the crown and escaped religious dogma, they were an eclectic bunch. They were mostly Christian, of course, but some very prominent thinkers—like Ben Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Payne, Ethan Allen, and others—were probably “deists” or “skeptics” by today’s standards, and certainly would not be considered Christians by most modern definitions. But to digress into this, or even the Treaty of Tripoli—wherein the Senate ratified and John Adams agreed via signature that “… the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion”—is to miss the point. It is equally not the point that the Supreme Court has only allowed un-branded, non-specific, deistic or obtuse references to “god” on money, because the meaning of the general term “god” has been “lost through rote repetition any significant religious content.”

But what cannot be missed, and should not be missed, is that the founding fathers debated the separation of church and state explicitly, hotly, and at length. What they came up with was a constitution that protected the people from any government involvement in establishing or promoting one belief over another, or any belief even over a worldview of non-belief, or the “atheistic” deism of the day (a non-personal god who started things, but is not active in the world’s operation any longer). The constitution is a secular document that defines and sets forth an explicitly secular government, not just for the obvious reasons of escaping potential tyranny, but to protect religion.

And the result of this explicit decision by the framers of our government? According to the Journal of Religion & Society, among other sources, the United States remains the most religious industrialized nation on the face of the earth. As pastor Greg Boyd argued in “Myth of a Christian Nation,” and as pastors, rabbis, and clergy like Rev. Dr. Welton Gaddy of the Interfaith Alliance have long argued as well, be very careful in wishing for more religion in government, because you never know what religion it may eventually espouse (or which version of the 33,000 distinct Christianities).

In the twinkling of an eye, it could happen to you

In the first example, where a government employee uses what should be the religion-free safety zone of public education to evangelize and persuade children toward his/her religion, this is a blatant violation of the letter and spirit of the first amendment, and of the very ideas that make this the most fertile land in the world for those who wish to practice and preach their religions as they see fit. Those in the second and third scenarios above, the merchants and individuals expressing their views freely, are enjoying the very fruits of that freedom.

Great constitutional minds envisioned intellectual freedom that would allow believers and nonbelievers alike to flourish in peace, and codified that vision in a constitution after much debate, saying “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” They recognized that such a limit on government would not only be a humane, modern, and an enlightened way to think, but it would protect religion and serve the greater good.

So wherever a government employee or institution tries to promote (i.e. establish) ANY religion as preferential over another religion, or over no religion, I have said it before and I will say it again: I will rise to protest the assault on the constitution. If your rights to access and practice your religion are so encroached upon or infringed upon by our government, I will loudly and forcefully stand by your side to object.

Yes, it may seem quaint or funny to some people when the ACLU protests a lunchroom teacher who promotes a religious view, when that view is the one you hold as the majority; but these are rights the framers applied to every single person, not rights that are limited only to a majority. Surely it would cease to be humorous if someday your majority beliefs fell to minority status—perhaps through immigration—and my Islamic lunch-time scenario actually played out. So won’t you join me and stand side-by-side with me in protest whenever my first amendment rights—or those of any US citizen—come under attack?

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(Stephen L. Gibson is the author of Truth-Driven Thinking, and A Secret of the Universe, a critically acclaimed, citation-rich novel about the intersections of science, reason, and faith. Still an emotion-driven thinker in recovery, Steve shares his journey in search of ever-elusive truth with thousands via his Truth-Driven Thinking podcast, and his Perspectives blog; © 2009, Truth-Driven Strategies LLC.)

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